This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Quilting cultures

ELKHART, Ind. — Several women stood around the nascent quilt spread on the floor of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church one Saturday last month. They were examining the illustrated pieces of cloth tentatively placed across it by two separate groups.

A project of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., and Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., the quilt conveys the story of African-Americans. — Rich Preheim
A project of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., and Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., the quilt conveys the story of African-Americans. — Rich Preheim

“See the contrast between the two halves,” said one of the quilters. “Theirs looks a little more . . . ”

“Professional!” quickly interrupted another one, producing hearty laughter among the women.

Creating a quilt always presents such artistic challenges. But these women are also confronting something more important: racism and reconciliation.

The quilt is a joint project of predominantly white Hively Avenue in Elkhart and Community Mennonite Church, a racially diverse congregation in Markham, Ill. Their quilt will visually convey the story of African-Americans, from being forcibly taken from their native lands, through enslavement and the civil rights era. It will conclude with depictions of the present and of hopes for a more just future.

At the Hively Avenue gathering, members of both congregations appliqued, embroidered and designed. They earlier worked separately on their own sections: Community on Africa and slavery and Hively Avenue on civil rights and the present and future. Now the quilters are putting their pieces together.

Among the 11 quilters present was Mechelle Mares from Community, who was following in the spirit of her distant relative Mark Twain, a noted opponent of slavery. Several women from the host congregation were novices, including Krista Pennington. An elementary school teacher, she said the stories on the quilt are still pertinent today.

“This needs to be shared,” she said. “This needs to be talked about.”

Also in attendance was Marie Wiebe from Emmaus Road Mennonite Church in Berne. She’s a quilting enthusiast, she said, “especially quilting for a purpose.”

The idea for the quilt was born out of an earlier initiative of the two congregations to promote racial and cultural understanding. With the support of a grant from Mennonite Church USA’s Central District Conference, of which both are members, Community and Hively Avenue last spring held a daylong event in Markham that included sharing, workshops and a prayer walk.

As a result of those activities, Community pastor Cyneatha Milsaps and Terri Geiser from Hively discovered their common interest in quilting. Thanks to another Central District grant, Milsaps and Geiser initiated the quilt project.

Patricia Urueña of the Hively Avenue Mennonite Church group stitches two pieces of the quilt together. — Rich Preheim
Patricia Urueña of the Hively Avenue Mennonite Church group stitches two pieces of the quilt together. — Rich Preheim

While quilting is often considered a Mennonite/Amish art form, neither Milsaps nor Geiser have Mennonite backgrounds but joined the church later in life. Milsaps, who is African-American, was introduced to quilting while on a civil rights tour to the South.

“Quilting was a huge part of our story, how we pass our story from one generation to another,” she said.

For slaves, quilts served more purposes than they did for white people, Milsaps said. Quilts were a way to record events and information, and the stitching on the back could be done to create maps. Milsaps has made three “slave quilts,” using Underground Railroad symbols, such as those that indicated safe houses or when it was time to prepare to leave.

Geiser, meanwhile, started quilting as a stress reliever during graduate school 30 years ago and has made a quilt almost every year since then. Quilting became part of Geiser’s Mennonite Central Committee service when she and her husband, Charles, were in El Salvador and Colombia. In both places, Geiser, a licensed social worker, taught hundreds of women to quilt as trauma healing.

While sitting and stitching, they would share stories, laugh together, cry together.

“That’s what showed me that quilting is so powerful for healing,” Geiser said.

As part of Community and Hively Avenue’s efforts, the quilters learned about African-American history. That included a trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati for an exhibit of quilts by women of color. For the whites, the lessons of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow could be harsh.

“I didn’t want to have to think of that,” Geiser said. “That was hard.”

The quilt, which will be 72 inches by 102 inches when completed, is scheduled to be unveiled at Central District’s annual assembly June 26-28 in Madison, Wis. After that, plans are yet to be determined.

“If it comes out well, we’ll show everybody,” Milsaps said. “If it doesn’t, it’ll go on a bed at Terri’s house.”

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